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Agnieszka Urazińska: Will it be a difficult return from the holidays?

Iwona Chmura-Rutkowska, PhD: Extremely difficult, but not because young people don’t want to come back. Most of us are tired of contact and relationships on social networks, messengers and platforms. In addition, various online sites where young people had previously felt at home were suddenly colonised by adults.

Did we break into young people’s Internet?

All because of the coronavirus. Until now, many virtually created spaces have played and continue to play the roles which once belonged to backyards, benches or whisks, where young people look for entertainment, support and contacts without adult supervision. Dangerous things are also happening there. There is a lot of material on the web that contains vulgar, degrading, physical and verbal abuse. It involves internal circulation. Already 9 to 10 year olds deal with pathological streaming practically on a daily basis. We live in times when the real and the virtual world intertwine. In reality, we organise children’s time so intensely and control them so much that they have hardly any free space. The Internet has become a place where relationships are built, experiences are gained, hierarchies are established and finding positions in groups occurs.

Do kids need secret groups and new social media platforms?

And encrypted channels, and closed groups, and rooms for the select few, and gaming portals like Discord. Yes, these are former backyard hideouts.

And then suddenly...

And then suddenly, in the spring of this year, the need for remote education appeared overnight. And due to the fact that the educational system, despite the recommendations that have appeared for years, has not developed a safe Internet environment – the teachers “popped out” lessons and tests on Teams, Whatsapp and Discord.

As far as I can remember, students didn’t always allow these lessons to be conducted.

So-called raids on lessons, or just plain break-ins began. Students, usually people from outside the school, interrupted lessons, muted the respondent’s voice and posted funny and vulgar material. They used their advantage in the virtual world.

Not a very elegant method.

Sure. Total mischief. But I have the impression that they defended their space a bit. We’ve all felt that online meetings make a lot of things easier but cannot replace live meetings. It’s not even that you can’t touch someone. In communication on platforms, it’s more difficult to find fluent communication, active listening or laughing together. The perception of visual stimuli is also poor – the picture is sometimes imperfect, the image and the environment are fragmentary and often modified. Online, many reactions and emotions can be hidden. Or you can just turn off the webcam. I have always conducted my classes with students using active methods – non-verbal communication is important to me to see how people react during discussions. Thanks to this, I was able to see what the level of interest in the topic is and to react flexibly. I ended my first online class with a total sense of failure. Nobody in the group of 40 people turned on their camera. For an hour and a half, I tried to establish emotional contact with dozens of rectangles from which a message flowed from time to time. Exhausting work. I can assure you that not only students long for face-to-face contact. I am particularly sympathetic towards the children who were in the final stages of education during the epidemic.

Did they suffer the most?

They experienced the greatest amount of stress. They were left on their own to prepare for their exams. They didn’t know whether and when they would be held. The system failed, the adults failed a lot of the time – either because they themselves faced problems that they couldn’t cope with, or they did not have the resources to support the children. Additionally, students from the last grades of primary school or high school graduates were deprived of various rites of passage.

So, it’s not just about buying a new dress and dancing the polonaise?

These rituals are extremely necessary because they allow you to psychologically end a certain stage of life, cross the border, say goodbye and take on new life tasks with an open mind and heart.

What will students return to after the pandemic holiday?

To a reality so changed that it is sometimes difficult to recognise. Well, there will be soap and toilet paper at school. That was a rather mischievous, not particularly funny joke. The positives can be that young people will appreciate how important it is to walk to school together, to go out to the playground, to sit down on a local bench or to go for a burger with friends. But they will certainly face problems as well. What remains important are the relationships they had with people before the pandemic and what has happened in recent months. Someone’s financial situation worsened because their parents lost their jobs. Someone hasn’t seen their beloved grandmother for months. Sickness or death in the family.  Fear. Not all adults coped well in the pandemic, and for many kids the sense of security and stability was severely damaged. In my circle I have examples of 10 or 11yearold children who failed to cope with the lack of contact with their peers and are currently in therapy. Young people have reported a lot of problems. Not just a longing for meetings and joint activities with the people important to them, but also  feeling overloaded by  24-hour contact with parents and siblings, constant control at home, feeling imprisoned, a lack of physical activity, fulfilling one’s passions, being overloaded with school duties, boredom, anxiety about the health of relatives and their own, frustration and violent behaviour from parents. In many cases, the COVID crisis has overlapped with previous individual or family problems.

How can adults help?

By talking. I would suggest a two-week adaptation period in schools to get closer, to get to know each other, to integrate, to think through how to solve problems. Half a year in the life of a child or young person is a long time. Children and young people have faced new challenges – and they coped differently because they had different personal and family resources and different conditions. We already know that children, just like adults, feel worse mentally and physically after this experience than before the pandemic. The primary concern therefore is to diagnose the psychophysical condition with which we are returning to school. And do you know which is the most important question to begin with?

I have no idea.

Like many adults, I get the impression that the most important thing is to ask what they need. You have to name the problems, to vent your emotions, to recognise them as real and important. Not to underestimate. Give them the feeling that they are not alone. It is important both for the youngest students and for those who have already started to consider themselves adults. Much more important than the implementation of the core curriculum. It is the duty of adults to sort out the chaos and – let’s face it – to prepare children for the potential return of the lockdown. Because we all have no idea what school will look like during the epidemic. A few days ago, adults who are managing this spaceship that is the education system in Poland prepared recommendations and standards for returning to school. But I don’t recall anyone asking children and young people what they needed to make their return to school the safest possible for them. Nobody asked the parents what support they expected for their children. Has anyone asked you?

Of course not. The school is silent and parents are asking each other what September will be like.

We must remember that we are participating in a kind of natural social experiment. Nobody has a fool proof recipe. I encourage you to direct your questions towards teachers and principals. Polish schools are highly hierarchical and distant. Children are used to the fact that teachers are there to give grades and whatever the student says can serve that purpose. It is difficult to open up in such a situation. Parents have more tools and resources to try to build a partnership with the tutor. I urge you not to speak using criticism and grievance, but to speak the language of your child’s concern and needs.

Please give me an example.

Instead of criticising and attacking: “Where were you when Jan was having problems during the pandemic? You sent assignments and nothing else! You just think about strikes, and you don’t take care of the students!”, I suggest speaking from the perspective of your experience: “Jan is longing for school, we have noticed such and such problems during the pandemic. Looks like he would need more support here and here. Please pay attention to this and that in his behaviour. I believe that we have a common goal, which is the welfare of the child. What can I do? I will be happy to cooperate and support.” This is opening up a space for a good conversation. There is a great need for all of us to return to the world we left behind in March. But it’s rather impossible. These are slightly different children. And a slightly different world. Excursions and joint projects couldn’t take place, friendly relations loosened, many groups broke up.

Someone coming back with acne, some girl with insecurities because she gained weight during the pandemic?

That’s true. It’s interesting that you are talking about a girl coming back worried about her figure.

Because girls probably have a bigger problem with that.

You used an old stereotype. After all, a boy may have gained weight too, and he is worried. However, you did touch on an important problem. Inferior treatment on the basis of gender resulting from stereotypes and prejudices is a real problem in schools. After the holidays, kids also return to what is not cool in everyday school life. The excluded ones became even more invisible during the pandemic. Those with special needs such as disabilities, ill health, learning disorders, developmental disabilities or neglect will have more difficulty returning. More stress from the very start. But on the other hand, for those kids who had problems with relationships, the lockdown could have been a relief from the constant struggle to survive and failures. There is a large group of children and adolescents who finally breathed in forced confinement. And this time is ending for them. Do you know which children are the most disadvantaged in Polish schools?

The poor ones?

Yes, unfortunately. Classism is the bane of our schools. People who are poor or considered to be poor are treated less favourably by their peers and by many teachers. But in second place are problems related to sexism and homophobia. If someone doesn’t fit in with the cultural gender pattern, acts contrary to it, they are not accepted. It is sometimes a matter of hairstyle, manner of speaking or interests.

Who is more affected by sexism at school?

Gender discrimination is definitely more relevant to girls since males are considered better and more important in our culture. The patterns of attractiveness are more disciplinary and oppressive than in the case of boys. We recognise that a woman’s body, and therefore a girl’s body, “says more” about her value than a boy’s body. Did you know that Polish girls aged 11-15 are among the teenagers who are the most critical of their bodies and the most dissatisfied with their appearances in the world? I conducted research with adolescents aged 13-15. I asked what is valued in girls and in boys. In the first place – no surprises. For both sexes, the most important thing is the ability to establish and maintain positive relationships with their peers.

Because popularity depends on them?

Yes, the group is the basis – everyone wants to have good relationships with their peers, be in a group, be someone important there, have someone to talk to about “problems with the folks”, be invited to parties. In the case of boys, what matters most is belonging and acceptance from other boys in the group. In the case of girls, you should seek the favour of both your female and male friends. In both sexes, it is extremely important to adapt to the stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. Boys in particular must be careful that their behaviour conforms to the pattern of heterosexual masculinity. All things girly and feminine are considered wrong. Girls quickly learn that what boys say and what boys do has more power and importance. Do you know what comes in second place and what follows when it comes to girls?

The body?

Yes. The foundation of girls’ popularity is the assessment of their appearance. You have to be slim, dress fashionably and have long hair. When a girl looks at herself in the mirror, she is satisfied only when she judges that the boys will like her legs, hair or waist.

Horrible.

This is the training that all of us have gone through, isn’t it? Teens admit that this path of femininity is very muddy and precarious. Those who overdo it with make-up or an attractive outfit fall victim to the typical slut-shaming that already occurs in primary school. They get the labels: “Looks like a slut”, “Dresses like a whore”, “Acts like a bitch”.

Is this what friends say?

This is what my friends say, and sometimes they think about themselves that way. Sometimes classmates rank the girls and award them points. Even though the rankings are unofficial, each girl knows where she is in them. In my research, I asked a group of junior high school students, boys and girls, to do a self-report: a day in a girl’s life / a day in a boy’s life at school. In the photos I received, I saw the school’s nooks and crannies – under the stairs, in the basement, in the toilets – where young people set the rules themselves. In every school, there are places that only boys or girls are allowed to enter. Or just selected girls. In one school, for example, the school gym was appropriated by a group of boys who were highest in the school hierarchy within a month. Only girls who were ranked 1 to 3 in their ranking were allowed to enter the gym. It took a long time for teachers to figure out what was going on.

They were alpha males and super chicks?

Not only chicks! Based on conversations with teenagers, I made a list of words for girls. The ones considered attractive are: chicks, hotties, babes. Those who are considered unattractive hear: slob, minger, pig, fat ass, whale, tart, fatty, slut, tomboy, peasant, elephant, or sow.

It hurts.

I cried my eyes out during this research. At first I thought: “It’s good that I will never be a teenager again” and later: “What a good thing I don’t have a daughter”.

I do. And I don’t know what I would advise her if she said her friends called her a ‘sow’.

I know what parents most often say. “Don’t worry, it’s all talk.” “Come on, boys at that age are like that.” And it’s not all talk. It’s violence. And the fact that it’s an adolescent boy is no excuse. No one is allowed to act like that. You have to react. Seek support. Tell someone about the harm. Talk back to the aggressor: “Don’t ever say that again. You have no right”. You have to show the aggressor that there are boundaries that must not be violated: “What you are doing is hurting me”.

Will it help?

Probably not always. But by reacting this way, we let them know that our boundaries have been crossed and that we do not agree to it. You should note that even terms referring to attractive girls are contemptuous and indicate objectification. It is demoralising that we teach girls from an early age to derive satisfaction from being a “hottie” or a “babe”. Girls from all over the world are informed that they are a commodity. That their time, energy and resources should be invested in their bodies.

Adults don’t help?

They use the stereotypes themselves. Male and female teachers are no exception. In school, girls are trained to be silent, polite and kind. They quickly realise that they are listened to less often and judged more severely. Those that do not fit into the “typical girl” pattern are screwed. Thanks to this, the boys gain space. Even if they have nothing to say or say stupid things, they have no qualms about it. It’s a paradox that in a school, where most of the staff are women who could show girls how important it is to fight for their voice and be themselves, stereotypes and inequality so often prevail. Teachers emphasise that they prefer to work with boys because they are more interesting and bolder. That it will pay off more socially, because the boy will probably use his skills better. Sad and unfair, right? Before the upcoming school year, I feel that we adults can do a lot to fight stereotypes and help children develop their potential, regardless of gender.

Parents?

You have to talk. About everything. Because an unheard teenager will seek support elsewhere. Even if a young man says: “Mum, I’m devastated because I have pimples on my face,” we shouldn’t say: “Oh, come on, what’s the problem.” We should suggest going to a dermatologist. Or to a chemist’s for a formula that will help.

School?

School is not an artificial world, young people learn to live there. We should take care of their safety. Inspire, help and respond to problems – concerning inequality, sexism, puberty and anxiety. September could be a new beginning. You can be closer, with more empathy, start a partnership dialogue that will help both the students and the teachers. I see a lot of challenges ahead. And I believe there are adults ready for these challenges.

Iwona Chmura-Rutkowska, PhD – pedagogue and sociologist from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, author of the book “To Be a Girl, To Be a Boy – and Survive. Gender and Violence at School in Teenage Narratives”

“Tenderness and freedom. Let's build balanced relationships” is a campaign run by Kulczyk Foundation along with “Wysokie Obcasy” and “Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation”.

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